Leading from where you are

"The team don't like or respect him", he said. "But I can make a difference to how the team operates, even if I'm not the leader."

It was an inspiring conversation with a young man who understood leadership. He was working in a team where the official leader was dictatorial and inconsistent. The team spent a lot of time over the 'water cooler' complaining about their boss and the direction he was taking them. 

"That just adds to the dissatisfaction and tension. When people push back they make themselves a target." 

When I asked what he did differently, here's what he shared:

  • I don't buy into gossip. It doesn't help anyone. If something is factual, i share what I know, otherwise I stay out of it.

  • I don't talk behind people's back, and when I hear others doing that, I pull them up. If I have feedback to give, I'll do that straight up with the person it concerns.

  • I do the best job I know how, even when I don't like how the instructions are given.

  • If I'm told to do something unreasonable, I respectfully  say why I think it is unreasonable.

  • I maintain my own standard of work and encourage others to do the same - It's easy to let it slip when you don't like the boss, but that reflects as much on me as on him.

It's a great example of leading from wherever you are. This young man is making a contribution to his team and his workplace that adds value and quality. What he is doing makes his team more unshakeable.

How do you lead from where you are?

Feel Like a Vending Machine - Ask More Questions.


Many leaders feel like a vending machine. Staff come to them with problems. They dispense solutions. It's exhausting and keeps leaders down in the weeds, rather than focussed on higher level thinking and work. The article I wrote about it hit a nerve and provoked some questions. Over the next few weeks, we'll explore some tips for getting out of the 'vending machine' cycle.

One of the easiest ways to break the cycle is ask more questions. Questions help you and your staff think through the issue and understand it. From your point of view, you want to be able to offer assistance (if it's genuinely needed) without bailing people out too easily. From their point of view, assisting them to think about the issue increases their understanding and ultimately their capacity. For both of you, the process builds greater trust and understanding making future issues and delegated tasks easier to tackle.


Here are some great questions to ask. You don't need all of them every time. One or two insightful questions create the space for your staff member to come up with their own solutions. They also identify what your most useful contribution to the issue, or your staffs development might be. Even if it is an issue that needs input from you, ask some questions first. It establishes an expectation that staff will think for themselves, and that you value/trust their input. The three questions in bold italics are almost always worth asking.

  • Who is involved in this issue? Who does the issue impact the most? Who would benefit from a solution? Are there any people this impacts who may not be aware of it yet? Who raised the issue? Who do we need to communicate with as we work on a solution?
  • When did you become aware of this? Are there any significant or critical timeframes we need to consider?
  • Where are the resources you need? Do you have access to them?
  • How would you solve the problem? 
  • Why is this important to you/us/the company/our stakeholders? Why do you need my assistance?
  • What is the impact if it isn't solved? What would it take to solve it? What resources/connections/networks would help? What attempts have you made to solve the issue? What do you think would be the most effective solution? What barriers (if any) are there to you doing that?

Go on - Unplug that vending machine!

When the game is over move on

I was talking to a colleague who has a rapidly growing business in entertainment. They manage artists, bring shows to Perth and create venues for great content. She's a great leader with a clear vision for her business. Her team are excited about creating it with her. With growth come several inevitable challenges for leaders. Systems have to move and evolve to keep up with where you want to get to. As the team grows, vision and leadership become more important, and simultaneously more diluted - Getting good and consistent messaging to staff and the market about what you are doing is critical. Growth also means that there may be times when staff who were a good fit when you were a different size, no longer are.

My colleague was describing a couple of conversations she had with staff who had been with her a while. In the early days, they had been awesome - Productive, switched on and enthusiastic. But that had waned.  She had spent considerable time with them attempting to recreate how it had been but nothing seemed to be working. Motivation continued to drop and they were starting to get in the way of progress.

She decided to have a straight conversation about the expectations they each had for the business and the role to see if that would lead anywhere productive. End result, the person left and was relieved. The staff member had been feeling obliged to stay with the business - feeling she would let the owner down if she left. She'd been excited about it when she first joined and had been a big part of creating the success. The rapid expansion was hard for her though, and she really liked smaller teams than this one was now. She found the constant evolution and growth stressful and wearing.

When they had an open conversation about what the owner needed from staff, and how her staff felt about the environment, it became clear to them both that it was time to move on. For the business it has been like taking a foot off the brake. A new person has joined with skill and enthusiasm for the current business, rather than what it once was. No doubt the person who left is also feeling relieved.

Situations like this are often stressful for everyone involved. It's easy to become victim to unspoken expectations and assumptions. Our perspective gets bent out of shape, and sometimes that results in conversations like this one becoming adversarial when there was no need for that.

Actions we can take:

Employers/Leaders/Managers - Set up clear expectations for people and roles early, and check in with them often. Use as many opportunities as you can to deepen you/your teams understanding of the expectations. Create an environment where conversations about what we expect and whether those expectations are being met are safe and regular. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

If you work for someone else - Be bold about asking for clarification of what the business expects from you. If your ecxpectations are not being met, raise the issue and explore it. Don't let things fester. If there is tension, friction or conflict do something about it as soon as possible - most big problems start out a small ones.

For both - If it's time to move on - do it.

Get the Basics Right


Anecdotal feedback from many leaders in many sectors suggest Western Australia is currently facing challenging times. It seems that there is more effort required to secure a sale, and that buyers are more consciously looking for lower cost and/or higher value for their spend. Providing good quality and timely service is always important. In a tough market it seems to me that it is essential. Scrap that - I reckon it's essential all the time. I'm amazed at how ofter I hear of businesses not even getting the basics right. In a buoyant market, it may be overlooked, but in a tight one, it could be enough to get you side lined.

A good mate of mine supervises technical work crews. His role is to liaise with clients, ensure the work is done to spec and act as a technical/safety back up to his crew. He gets deployed all over the world. He has two skills that I reckon make him stand out from the crowd:

  • He's quick - His work rate is high, but more importantly he can get to an unfamiliar location and quickly get his head around the skillset of his crew, the issues on site, and build rapport with the people he needs to liaise with.
  • Great Communication - He'll make sure every one is in the loop. He anticipates issues and gets in front of them. And he's always on the look out for ways to improve the standing of his company and their reputation with clients.

As a result he often gets pulled off his main job to sort out potential issues, and it's amazing how often this is the result of the basics not being covered properly. Recently, the supervisor that was replacing him on the next shift did not have the minimum qualifications to supervise the job. If he had left without rectifying the situation the whole job would have stopped costing many thousands and who knows what in terms of reputation. It's a basic of the job. A fundamental specification that was either overlooked or ignored. That seems an unnecessarily high risk to me.

But it must happen a fair bit - I'm amazed at how often people tell me of clients who are grateful for something that seems pretty basic - like follow up, or customer service, or delivering on an agreement, or holding yourself accountable.

I'm sure we have all experienced the receiving end when the basics are not done well. My wife and I did an online booking for a restaurant a while back. We got the usual email confirmation. When we arrived we were told there was no booking. "On line" we said. The owner then proceeded to berate us for using the online system which was broken. We got a table and breakfast, but we haven't been back, and possibly neither have several other parties who were in earshot of the dressing down we got.

A warm greeting at the door is a basic. It is called hospitality after all, unless they changed it to hostility while I slept.

One of the easiest and most underrated ways to stand out, regardless of your job, position or level of ownership is simply to do what you say you will do. I my mind that includes the basics which are surely implied if not explicitly stated. 

If for some reason it is not possible to deliver on the basics, be courteous, accountable and professional while you negotiate a solution. It will help you stand out from the crowd, and often the only cost is discipline.

Banking for the Future

What's it like being on the team you are on? The experience can be dynamic and productive. A great team performs well, exceeding the results that any one member could achieve. Other teams get in their own way. When the objectives are not clear and people are not pulling their weight, a team can add work and confusion. 2017 has been dominated with discussions about teams for me. Leaders and team members have been tackling the ingredients for high performance and also dysfunction. Over the next few weeks I'll share a series of insights about teams from both sides.

"You have to bank for the future and trust that will get you through the challenges"

Picture this:

The sector you are in is facing the largest change it has seen in 40 years. There's widespread optimism about the change, but also lots of confusion. The big picture looks compelling but for some individual staff and customers it's not great. People are looking for answers and they are not always available - not because anyone is trying to mislead - simply because many things are still on the drawing board. The nature of jobs is changing. Employees are dealing with their own uncertainty while facing a barrage of customer uncertainty and angst. 

One leader reflected on the unofficial nature of some of the teams he is leading. Groups of people who are held together more by relationships and common ground, than because they are an actual team. He spoke of "banking" trust and reliability. Doing the right thing consistently. Following through on promises. 

In an environment that is totally relationship based these are the only tools available to make the team perform. They are powerful tools and in a more formal team setting they often get overlooked.

How do you build trust within your team? I reckon the most powerful way to influence trust is to consistently do what you say you will do. Regardless of whether you are a leader, or a team member, backing yourself in this way creates a sense of certainty and reliability around you. "Banking" credit in relationships will help when the team faces challenges. 

HUH? - Digital Dialogue

The beep of an incoming message had me reaching for my phone. New text message. From a colleague and mate. Like me, he helps people get better at understanding each other and communicating better. The communication between us is some of the best work place comms I have ever experienced. Clear, precise and with each of us checking we have an actual understanding, rather than just an assumed one.

We'd exchanged a few short txts to clarify details of a meeting. We were pretty much done, so I expected his last message would be a simple confirmation.

So the txt baffled me. It was long. It was filled with heaps of detail about the meeting. It seemed to have an impatient tone about it - which would be fair enough. We'd been through the detail days ago.

I started quizzing myself about what it meant. I imagined him feeling frustrated, and wondered if the level of trust we had built had been damaged somehow. I felt mildly angry - does he think I'm stupid, or disorganised? Maybe both.

I sent back:


His reply:


All of a sudden it was clear. He was responding to uncertainty from my end. But I had not sent 2 question marks. I had sent 2 thumbs up emojis, universally understood in our part of the world as "ALL GOOD".

Somewhere in the mobile network/smart phone universe my "ALL GOOD" had changed to "HUH?"

It was a moment when both of us could have acted on our frustration and sent messages back and forth that made the situation muddier and inserting little needles of damage into our otherwise excellent comms.

I often say that friction, tension or conflict, however slight, are an indication that there are different perspectives at play. Sometimes it also means blind spots are being created. If you become aware of of tension, friction or conflict pause and notice how you might react - I was on the verge of slightly crisp and sarcastic response to his txt. Switch on your curiosity and see if you can understand where the other person is coming from. Curiosity will create clarity.

And beware the emoji - regardless of what you meant, who knows what comes out the other side.

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place
— George Bernard Shaw

Staying Fresh

Do you ever get into a groove? Not the helpful sort that's characterised by flow and productivity, but the sort where you feel you are getting stale. Depending on how deep and long it is you might even call it a rut. I reckon it's part of human nature to experience these times. Most people I speak to have experienced it at least once. Maybe it's a product of our search for certainty.

We are wired to manage our environment in a way that creates some certainty and predictability. Depending on personality and background, some people like more certainty than others. Some of us follow very precise and ordered sequences for almost everything we do. Going back to the same coffee shop, talking to the same people and driving the same way to work are all examples. Others will seek greater variety, sometimes going to extremes. But even then there are ways they create certainty. In the high risk sport of wing suit proximity flying for example, people spend huge amounts of time planning until they are certain enough of the outcome to make the jump. Despite appearances, they don't have a death wish.

Part of life is finding your personal balance between variety and certainty. Enough variety that you don't fall into a rut. Enough certainty that you feel comfortable.

Every year I intentionally do at least one thing that I have never done before. It keeps me fresh. I search for a challenge that will push back some boundaries and expose me to new skills. The experience should induce a bit of fear I reckon - something that puts me in a position of being a beginner with a lot to learn. For me a tandem skydive, or bungy jump would not meet the criteria. While both would be scary and definitely get me out of my comfort zone, neither requires me to learn. In both situations I'm dependant on an expert. 

This year's challenge is a stand-up comedy course that ends with a 5 minute stand-up performance to a live audience. I'm getting sweaty palms just writing about it. Some people don't believe me when I say that, after all I speak for a living, and sometimes it's humorous. But comedy is different I reckon. There's something very exposed about being on stage specifically to make people laugh. And there's nowhere to hide if it doesn't work. Humour is a pretty personal thing as well. What makes me laugh might not make you laugh. It could be a long 5 minutes!  

I recommend this kind of personal stretch at least once a year for anyone. 

  • It keeps you fresh.
  • It's great for brain health.
  • You become more aware of yourself, and sometimes find strength and resources you didn't know you had.
  • You'll probably have some fun.

I think it's especially important for leaders.

  • It reminds you what it's like to be lead, especially if the leader is asking you to stretch yourself.
  • It reminds you that you don't know everything.
  • It awakens creativity and insight that are impossible to access from the rut.
  • It makes you more aware of what it takes to create an environment where people are willing to follow.

What will you do to challenge yourself this year?

If you want to join me at the school of comedy details are here. https://www.schoolofcomedy.com.au/stand-up/

If you want some other ideas here's my article on the same subject from last year.


Rude = Expensive

I looked across the track at the small collection of gear I had packed for this advanced survival exercise. It was nearly dark and I was being patted down to ensure I had nothing other than a pocket sized survival kit on me. I glanced nervously at my eight companions as our gear was thrown into the back of a vehicle. We were handed an envelope and our instructors drove into the gathering darkness, leaving us alone. We opened the envelope and read our instructions, "You are somewhere on one of your 3 maps ... ".

In hindsight the next three days were characterised by hasty decisions and poor communication as we struggled to come to terms with our circumstances. We also lashed out at each other - verbal sparring as we vented frustration about our external circumstances on each other.

Over the 20 years I worked as a survival instructor it never ceased to amaze me how easily individuals and groups could be made to feel they were at threat. In that state, people are more reactive than normal and results definitely suffer. It's amazing how rarely people pause to consider the best course of action.

In the modern work context a sense of threat is not unusual either. Most workplaces experience some level of uncertainty. Mostly it's from circumstances beyond our direct control. One possible reaction is rudeness to the people around us. I can certainly think of more than one occasion when my conduct was not as good as it could have been.

Rudeness in itself is enough to make people feel at threat. It damages psychological safety (How safe people feel). And it doesn't have to be extreme (or deliberate) to have an impact.

  • Raised voices
  • Harsh words
  • Intimidating body language
  • Slammed doors
  • Banter and sarcasm
  • Side conversations and excluding people
  • Disregard for people's time
  • Sending emails, taking calls, checking watches while you should be listening to someone
  • Not following through on things you said you would do

Over the last two decades, Christine Porath and colleagues have researched rudeness in the workplace. They clearly identify many impacts on individuals, teams and bottom line. A recent article in HBR summarises their findings and others in the field. If you want the detail you can find it at hbr.org/2017/01/how-rudeness-stops-people-from-working-together

How we treat each other is largely a choice. We can choose to be civil, even in the most demanding environments. It's one of the few things that we have direct control over which has a massive and positive impact on our team environment. It's an easy way to directly impact cohesion, trust, productivity and engagement. It also takes effort and attention.

All of us have moments where we crack or fray and resort to rudeness out of frustration. Perfect politeness is not the goal. But in situations when we accept rudeness from ourselves and others it gets worse, not better. Increasing levels of incivility become the norm of 'how things are done around here'. Looking at Porath's research, it's way too expensive on almost every measure to allow that. And it's on the rise.

Reflect on how you, your team and your business conduct themselves when some of these common stressors occur:

  • Giving or receiving feedback about performance
  • A new deadline, or urgent of piece of work
  • A customer complaint
  • The photocopier crapping out in the middle of an urgent print run
  • An interruption when you are in the flow of work
  • New (and probably onerous) requirements from an external regulator, customer or market
  • A long day to meet a deadline
  • Scope creep
  • A financial loss
  • Personal pressures from outside work like a puking kid, unexpected bill, or relationship problems
  • Something not going to plan

Here are four things you can do to influence how cohesive and effective your team is. A single individual can influence others by paying attention to these things. It's even more effective when whole teams (or organisations) decide to remove rudeness from their environment.

  1.  Aim - to treat each other well in spite of the pressures you face. Work on respect and integrity. Even when there are hard messages to deliver or receive, do it politely.  
  2. Recognise - the kinds of situations that tend to push your personal buttons. What about the team? Start spotting rudeness and noticing its impact. Also recognise that different people have different levels of skill around rudeness. It's much easier to avoid if you have had lots of examples through life of people who handle adversity without getting rude. 
  3. Clarify - the kinds of behaviour that you want to see, and the ones to avoid. Also the situations that may trigger rudeness. Be as specific as you can. Discuss it politely away from heated moments. Talk about what you will do when you see, experience or perpetrate rudeness. Discuss how you might raise the bar and hold each other to account. Explore where the line is between healthy banter and rudeness for your team. When people do something you consider rude, give a clear example of both the behaviour and its impact on you.
  4. Apologise - when you notice something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Do it whenever you know you have crossed the line, however small the crossing might be. Accept other people's apologies with grace. Remember it is unlikely to be perfect, cut each other some slack.



4 tips for leaders under pressure

I'm kicking my year off with a bang! Next week I'm working with a diverse group of forty leaders. Together they represent State Primary Schools, Oil and Gas, Health, Environmental Services, Not-For-Profits, Human Services. There's a mix of people who founded and own their business, and others who are entrusted to lead it. Some are large, publicly listed companies and some are small. 

Together we'll be looking at Leadership Under Pressure! Regardless of sector or size, leaders are facing unprecedented levels of pressure and change. Leaders are dynamic people with a passion for getting great results. Sometimes that has an impact on their own wellbeing. Here are four tips for leaders under pressure.

Breathe - It's easy to get caught up in the rapid fire transitions between all the meetings, roles and responsibilities of the modern leader. We are not well adapted to that, but it's not an option to stop either. It all has an impact - adding stress hormones to our bodies, reducing sleep, gaining weight etc. Slow rhythmic breathing sends a clear signal to your body to switch off the stress response. Unless you are a well practiced monk, it's unlikely that you'll get through a whole day focussed on how you are breathing, so just focus on the transitions. As you are going from one thing to another pause and take 3 long slow rhythmic breaths. It will help shed the stress of what you just did and focus more effectively for your next leadership challenge. It's quick, easy and effective.

Nature - There's piles of research showing that even small amounts of time in nature rejuvenate us in all kinds of ways. Creativity, problem solving and mental clarity all improve, as do wellbeing and resilience. There's lots of other benefits too. See if you can get a small slice of nature every day. Lunch in a park, walk, meet by the riverside, sit under a tree (also a great place for a meeting) watch a flock of birds.

Clarity - A leaders role can sometimes feel like an endless repeat of the same messages. That's a good thing. Investing time making sure people understand vision, direction and expectations is rarely wasted. It's easy to get caught up in endless frenetic doing which can result in a lack of clarity. In turn that breeds confusion and inefficiency. I see so many teams doing work over because of lack of clarity. It sucks energy, motivation and resources. Make it a priority to build clarity. Even if it takes you away from your immediate task list, the result will be more progress in the long run.

Progress - For many of the things we work on, it's hard to feel a sense of progress. Take time each day to acknowledge the achievements of the team. Creating a sense of progress is a great way to inject energy and maintain motivation.

I'd love to hear from you about what sustains you under pressure.

Wishing you a 2017 filled with great leadership moments!




Surviving Christmas - Tips for the silly season

It's a crazy time of year isn't it? Looming deadlines, social events, awesome food. Here are my top tips for managing the craziness.

  • Reassess Workload - There's always a frantic push to get things completed before Christmas. Some of the things you are working on deserve the priority and push, but more often that not, the pressure is caused by an arbitrary deadline - Christmas! Review what's on your plate. Be ruthless about what definitely needs to be done now and what could wait to January or even February. For one of my coaching clients this week, just having permission to consider that it might not all be urgent allowed for clearer decisions. In the long run it will also equal better quality work.
  • Clarify Expectations - At this time of year we add in heaps of extra social events, more food and alcohol. We have people around for meals and celebrations. Invest time in clarifying expectations for yourself and the people around you - Boss, partner, kids, colleagues, customers, suppliers, etc. Get a clear picture of what people expect and then work out what's actually achievable. We are having family over for Christmas lunch. We started making a list of all the things we wanted to do around the house before hand. It was a big list, and was never going to happen. That's a recipe for stress and disappointment. We got down to what was really important and why, and made a plan from that. Everyone is clear. We keep talking and updating each other as things are done, or timeframes change.
  • Survey Obligations - Lot's of people feel obliged to do all kinds of stuff at this time of year. Catch up with everyone. Drink or eat to much. Stay up late. A bit like work load, some of this can be done next year. It's OK to say no.
  • Build Buffers - When you are making your plans, don't forget to factor time for packing, travel, organising yourself and the people around you, and down time. Be realistic about when and where you can be places.
  • Help Out - Notice when the people around you are feeling the pressure. Do small (or large) things for them that take the pressure off. It might be as simple as the dishes, or taking the bin out. It might be more more than that too. Be kind to each other.
  • Add Gratitude - Take a few moments out, preferably daily, to be thankful. All the frantic deadlines and celebration can have us distracted from the many good things and people that surround us. Say thanks when people do things for you. Notice and appreciate what you have. Research consistently shows that daily practice of gratitude is one of the best things we can do for our mental wellbeing, resilience and outlook. You might like to add it to your nightly conversations with people, express it in art or keep a journal. If you lead a team be sure to express your gratitude for their work.
  • Stay Healthy - Drink plenty of water. Keep up with the sleep - add some 20 min power naps here and there. And smash heaps of fresh fruit and veggies as well as all the rich yummy stuff we both know we are going to eat. That will help to keep your body and mind in reasonable shape.
  • Get an Elf - Seriously! The little guys are so productive and cheerful they just catch you up their enthusiasm.

Next week we'll look at fatigue and some tips to manage that.

Be Bold!

Have you ever had moments as a leader when you have felt unsure and timid. I certainly have. Regardless of whether you hold an "official" leadership role, we get called upon to lead in all manner of ways. Leading is an interesting thing to do. And in my experience it's a great way to grow. Leadership has presented opportunities for some fantastically positive outcomes and some subtle influence with people that has steadied the ship. It's also presented challenges, self doubt and a reasonable share of mistakes.

Sunrise over the Southern Ocean

Sunrise over the Southern Ocean

 I spent most of last week on the beautiful south coast of WA with a group of year 9 boys. These emerging young men were walking, paddling, cycling and surfing and learning about leadership in practice.

There were some outstanding young men and we had some great conversations about what makes a good leader.

One in particular stood out from the crowd. He was able to positively influence his peers, rally their focus and energy and organise them for a result. His presence created a sense of calm and certainty. That was on a good day. There were other times when he was right in the thick of disruptive and counter productive action. Chalk and cheese. It was as if a different person showed up. 

We had a great conversation about it. He was really aware of the swing and said he much preferred to lead well. When I asked what was holding him back he had the answer straight away.

Self Confidence. 

He was concerned about what people would think, unsure about making the right call, not wanting to seem too confident, afraid of the attention he might receive, sometimes feeling the weight of responsibility. These are familiar themes from the work I do with leaders, and from my own experience. 

To lead is to step up in many big and small ways. It takes boldness. To say what needs to be said. To do what needs to be done. To acknowledge the efforts of others. To be responsible and accountable for your results. To raise the bar. To move between the spotlight and the background as the situation demands. To think ahead. To collaborate. 

However and wherever you lead. No matter how large or small your role. Be Bold!

Focus - Broad and Soft vs Narrow and Hard

When I was learning to fly, I was introduced to the Air Speed Indicator (ASI). The ASI is the flying equivalent of a speedo. It tells you how fast you are going. Whether you are taking off, landing or just flying around there are important speeds to be aware of. You manage speed to get the best performance out of the aeroplane. Unlike a car, speed is managed by raising or lowering the nose, rather than adding or reducing throttle. Lift the nose and it slows down and starts to climb. Lower the nose and it descends and speeds up. There's a window of best performance speeds for different aspects of the flights. At each side there is an extreme that you really need to avoid to stay safe. Too slow and the aircraft stops flying. Too fast and you risk structural damage or loss of control. 

Like most trainee pilots my focus was fixated on the ASI. I would watch it like a hawk to get the right speed. My focus would become increasingly fixated and hard. Trouble is, it doesn't work that way. There's a bit of lag between what you do and the speed shown on the dial. Trying to control speed with your eyes glued to the instrument means you porpoise through the sky - nose up, nose down, nose up, nose down. The speed never settles and you literally chase the needle, and the plane all over the sky. When you get too fixated on the needle you can end up with a growing oscillation that is increasingly out of control. 

To fly well your attention has to be outside the plane, with occasional glances at the instruments to confirm what you observe. A broad, soft focus allows you to see how the plane looks relative to the horizon, how the controls feel, the sound of the engine and the wind over the wings. These things along with the ASI allow you to fly smoothly and well. With your head up you can also pay attention to other important things like other air traffic, weather, and where you are. Hard fixation is a dangerous recipe. 

There are times when a hard fixation is useful. Analysing specific and complex data, and some types of problem solving are good examples. You don't want to be distracted by a broad view. Other times we need to scan more widely to be effective.

A great example of this is in sales. It's easy to get a hard fixation on the features and benefits of whatever you are selling and start lashing a potential customer with what you want to sell, in the way you want to sell it. We've all experienced this at some point - a salesperson flat out answering questions about the product or service. Trouble is there's a disconnect, none of the answers are to the questions that are important to you. It's like they are not even listening. In a worst case scenario you walk away from something you would otherwise have brought. 

A great skill in business is to be aware of your focus and intentional about it. Consciously decide what sort of attention/focus is best for the situation you are in, and then choose tools to help you maintain it. 

Goals vs Areas of Focus

We have been told for years that goals are the road to success. There's been everything from reputable research through to pop psychology explaining why goals are so important. The snap shot summary is:

  • Without a clear idea of where you are going, it's unlikely you will get there.
  • Setting goals that are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound) makes it much more likely that the goal will be attained.
  • The goal by itself means nothing. Successful people also take massive action toward their goals.

I know many people who are great goal setters. It works really well for them. Goals help them get motivated and focussed and they regularly exceed the targets they set for themselves. But goals don't work for everyone, or in all situations.

More recently there has been a significant body of research suggesting that goals have a dark side and may not be as useful, productive or relevant as previously thought. Some of the factors include:

  • If a goal is not reached exactly (like it ran late or didn't quite reach the specific target), some people find that extremely frustrating and demotivating. They subsequently lose a lot of energy in self criticism due to the unmet goal.
  • In many circumstances, quality of work is sacrificed for reaching the target. While the numbers are achieved, how they are achieved is not always desirable. Some people will cut corners, act unethically, or neglect other important focus because for them the idea of not reaching the goal is worse than doing it poorly.
  • Specific goals can sucker individuals and organisations into an way of operating that is inflexible and unresponsive to changing conditions. Essentially they become too focussed on achieving the goal and their perception narrows.
  • There are other interesting organisational impacts emerging. If you are keen to know more you might like to check out this paper.

On top of this there are personalities and situations that don't lend themselves to goal setting. In these circumstances, goals can be counter productive. For example:

  • I, like many others have a strong negative reaction to being told what to do. At my worst even if it's me telling me what to do, and I think it's a good idea, my default reaction is resistance. When I set goals for myself, it's actually negatively motivating, and I have to play all sorts of mental games with myself to make progress.
  • If you don't know enough about what you are trying to achieve, it is very difficult to make meaningful SMART goals. The plane build I wrote about last week is like that. I don't know enough to be able to meaningfully estimate the time it will take to complete a component.
  • Sometimes a broad, soft focus is the most appropriate response to circumstances (I'll say more about this in a future article). If the operating conditions are highly dynamic, a narrow, specific focus can get you into a world of trouble.
  • Some goals are about creating new habits or just getting more focussed. Consistency over time, just showing up and taking action are more effective than driving for something specific.

That's where Areas of Focus come in. Rather than setting a specific goal an area of focus simply determines where you will focus your energy and attention. For those of us that don't like to be told what to do the softer focus brings greater energy and enthusiasm to related tasks. 

If you are a habitual and successful goal setter, I certainly wouldn't recommend you change what you are doing, but if you have not found goals to be useful, you might like to choose an area of focus.

Ask yourself - Where can I most fruitfully direct my energy and attention? Why is this area of focus important right now? Am I clear about what the vision is for this area of focus? Who else needs to be involved and how can I make it clear to them?

Once your area of focus is decided, the same rules apply as for goals - turn up and take massive action. That's the secret ingredient that makes stuff possible. If you want a great and inspiring example of massive action to get a result check out Jack Andraka, a teenager who is making significant progress in cancer research. The volume of work he has undertaken is impressive. 



Stacking the Deck with Jokers

Group Think for Leaders

There's a phenomenon in survival and safety/accident research where people increase their exposure to risk by getting away with inherently risky acts. Getting away with it creates a mental model that doesn't see the risk, or believes the activity to be safe. In some cases, this is compounded by the fact that every time the activity is repeated it builds up more "energy" for a failure.

A good example of this is people texting while driving. The first time someone does it, they feel uncertain and nervous. Nothing bad happens so they do it again, maybe giving even more time to the screen. Gradually they desensitise themselves to the risk, feeling like it does not apply to them.

I call it "Stacking the deck with Jokers". At some point, someone will brake suddenly in front of them. They are unprepared, not alert, and have no plan in mind. They have no "real" cards to play. The research shows people in this state become victims of accidents that were totally obvious and predictable to others. If they survive, they report being completely taken by surprise...

We do this in the business environment as well. It looks like a lack of self leadership - ignoring an intuitive sense that something isn't quite right, following someone else's lead with blind faith, developing a sense of complacency with team members or customers.

There are some simple measures to avoid falling into this state. A friend demonstrated them beautifully as a pilot in a close formation flying display. It was led by a well known and respected pilot of considerable experience. The weather was marginal for flying to the extent that any good flying instructor would caution their students never to fly under those conditions. He described the lead up to take off:

  • exhilaration for being part of it
  • busy, focused on ensuring his preflight checks were thorough and complete
  • a sense of peer pressure (we have a display to put on, everyone else seems happy to go)
  • unquestioning faith in the experience, qualification and leadership of the pilot in charge - "if he thinks its safe with all his experience, I will follow him"
  • a small niggling feeling of doubt about the weather

At the last moment he aborted his takeoff. The others completed their flight uneventfully, stacking the deck with jokers like "its OK to fly in conditions like that".

What made it possible for my friend to abort? It was all about self leadership:

Intuition - He paid attention to the small but persistent intuitive feeling that he was putting himself and others at risk.
Self Examination - He began to ask questions like "Would I fly in these conditions under normal circumstances?"
Backing himself - He "switched on" his own training, experience, judgment and thinking and assessed the situation himself, rather than just following the group.
Courage - He exercised the courage of the self leader, and took a decision that was possibly unpopular with the leader and his peers

People who apply these principles are of great value to themselves and those around them - they make it possible to "see" risky mental models and make sound choices. They stack the deck in their favour. Those are valuable skills in leadership.

Is there anyone you follow blindly - especially if it is detrimental to yourself, others and the results you are trying to achieve? What would you need to do to exercise more judgement and self leadership in that situation?

Psychological Safety - Creating safety with staff and your customers

To create a psychologically safe environment requires at a minimum that you establish trust, boundaries, and a sense of control in the team or social environment.
— Robert J. Marshak

We have been there before, you and I. We have stood in that place of uncertainty. That place where we feel uncertain and therefore unsafe. 

The uncertainty can be created in many ways - attempting to learn or master a new skill, meeting someone for the first time, public speaking, a follow up call or a sales meeting, being in a new place or team, expectations not being met...

We all react differently to these situations.  Our past experience, knowledge and how we perceive risk, drive our response. But for most of us uncertainty leads to feeling unsafe.

It's called psychological safety because the actual risk and danger may be non existent.

Regardless of the actual risk we perceive risk and danger and interpret it as real.

Part of my work as a survival instructor was designing scenarios with a high level of uncertainty built in. I'd deliberately push people into feeling unsafe and uncertain - after all, they have came to learn how they react and respond, how to master their emotional turmoil and create a sense of control within the uncertainty they face.

Their reactions, just like yours and mine are interesting and often surprising.

In a business setting, staff and customers may feel unsafe for many reasons. The results are distraction, loss of trade, down time, confusion, defensiveness and/or aggression, people making their own rules, lack of vision and direction, poorly made decisions etc...

There are many actions you can take to create a sense of psychological safety for anyone in any situation.

These are my top three. Why not try them with your team and customers.

  1. Be clear about your vision. How do you see this situation or interaction working out? Visualise the outcome. Get as specific and detailed as you can.
  2. Clarify expectations. What is it that you and they expect? Be diligent in understanding their perspective and be prepared to meet or exceed expectations whenever you can. If that's not possible, be prepared to clarify further and negotiate some agreed expectations.
  3. Communicate often. Keep people in the loop. One of the biggest complaints within teams and from customers is that they just don't know what's going on. People have different preferences and expectations about how you should keep them informed. Be a student of this and meet or exceed their expectations. This is especially important in times of change or uncertainty. 

These key actions go a long way towards achieving the trust, boundaries, and sense of control  mentioned in the opening quote.

Expectations alter Reality

Last week we explored how expectations kill people.

But expectations have another, perhaps more powerful function. They bend reality to meet us. Humans have always been able to imagine a different reality and then bring it into being. It's the source of every innovation we have ever made.

Research and anecdotal evidence shows that many people in survival situations stay alive against incredible odds, sometimes even defying medical science. It would be reasonable to think that they are people who are physically tough, or better trained for the situation that they face. The reality is far more interesting – the one thing they have in common is that they expect to survive.


There's a great example of this in  “Unbroken”, Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Louie Zamparini. Louie was lost at sea on a life raft for 47 days having been shot down over the Pacific in 1943. The on the raft were two of Louie's  crew mates - the only survivors of the crash. The book and subsequent movie are well worth a look.

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigour. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyse him and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.
— Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Ultimately, Mac passed away, while the other two survived their ordeal.

There's a powerful link between what we expect, what we intend and where we put our attention.
Zamparini intended to survive. He expected events to unfold to support his intention. He gave his attention to the evidence that suggested he was right, and to the actions that supported his intention.

You and I have intentions and expectations everyday, in every area of our lives, whether we are aware of them or not. They guide and focus our attention. For the greatest likelihood of success, all three factors need to be conscious and work in harmony with each other.

Asking yourself these questions will assist in bringing them into your conscious mind. 

What is my intention? Am I clear about my intention? If not, how can I make my intention clearer to myself and the people around me? Is my intention aligned to my personal values?

What do I expect in this situation?

Now give your attention to the actions and mindsets that serve you best in this moment, and watch as reality begins to take shape around you according to your expectations.

Expectations kill people!

In every survival situation I can think of it’s the expectations that did it.

The pilot expected to make it through lowering cloud… and flew into a mountain.

The prospector expected to find his way back to his vehicle… and was lost for days.

The lost man expected to find water… and perished from dehydration.

Reality! - No one in their right mind would continue into a situation they expect will kill them. 

In a survival situation the feedback is rapid. When you make a mistake the consequences are quickly experienced, sometimes in a matter of hours.

In our fast paced modern life, consequences may take days, or even years to arrive, but they are just as inevitable:

They expected the boom to go on and on...

He expected his staff to care as much about his business as he did…

So how can expectations lead us so far astray?
The fact is that our amazing brain treats memories of actual events and expectations of the future in exactly the same way.

“[Expectations] are stored in memory just as past events are. To the brain the future is as real as the past.”
L. Gonzales in ‘Deep Survival’ (2003).

The impact is that we tend to become fixated on our expectations, and then continue to blunder forward with a kind of blind optimism that believes the expectation will come to pass. That serves us well until there is a conflict – either between our expectations and those of another; or when reality begins to diverge from what we expect. At that point we have the choice of reformulating our expectations. If we don’t we are destined to encounter disappointment, conflict and friction.

The biggest challenge is being aware of what your expectations actually are. Most are formed without any conscious thought. for more on that see recent post http://goo.gl/dHZydF

I use a couple of great questions to clarify my own expectations:

  1. What do I expect in this situation?
  2. What is the impact on myself and others if this expectation is not met?

Once you are clear about your own expectations, one of the greatest gifts you can give to others is to clearly communicate your expectations with them, and seek to understand theirs.

The beginning of a new financial year is a great time to intentionally discuss your expectations in business. Are your strategies sound in the current reality? Are you tuned in to the expectations of your clients or customers? Does your team have a clear picture of what is expected of them, including how success will be measured or judged? Have you spent some time exploring the plausible "what if" scenarios for your business? 

Why take your team outside?

I had an interesting conversation with a corporate client last week about Outdoor Team Building. We were reminiscing about the late '80's and early '90's when adventure based activities were popular as a company team building event. People in their droves swapped suits for bush clothes and paddled, climbed, swung, paint balled and built their way to team success.

Most activities like this have a similar formula - a problem that can only be solved/overcome by a team who can innovate, communicate and cooperate. It's a solid formula. Most workplaces are attempting to create teams that do just that. So why did these programs all but disappear?

  • One size fits all - Despite being highly flexible about activities and locations, the vast majority of operators ran the same program, regardless of the client. The place and activities might change, but how and why it was done remained much the same.
  • No connection - The potential links between activities and the people doing them were poorly explored. It was fun but didn't relate to the "real world".
  • Missed opportunities - Most programs were staffed by technically skilled young people who knew the activities inside out. Some had leadership experience, but mostly in the outdoors. Few had business experience. Activities were often debriefed in very superficial ways. Canned debriefs included sweeping, generalised statements like "So you see, communication is really important". Participants were given opportunities to reflect on behaviour, but few tools for any significant change. In the worst of programs, teams were actually worse off. They had seen and confronted ineffective team behaviour, and left the program aware, disgruntled and unsupported.

NOTE: These are generalisations. There were and are a few excellent companies providing such activities that do an awesome job of all the above.

So why do I recommend companies take their teams outside?

I just wanted to pass on my gratitude and appreciation for the planning, facilitation, insights, activities, catering and all the other experiences and knowledge created over the 2-day bush retreat. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gained a lot from it including how to use a compass correctly!

The additional resources you gave us are perfect. I set up meetings with each Area manager to work on improving my unit’s service and delivery to them. I am confident that the questions and guidance you provided will assist in us understanding our customer needs and focusing our resources correctly.
— Senior Manager - Bush Retreat
  • Different environment - Stepping out of the familiar work setting changes everything. Hierarchy seems less important. The pace naturally slows. Corporate language and formality drop away. Habitual ways of relating to each other are reset. Communication improves. Silo walls get torn down.
  • Perception expands - Physically people's eyes move from short intense focus to broad soft focus. As teams renegotiate their way of being together, previously unspoken assumptions about "the way things are done around here" get some conscious air time. Collective and self awareness rises. 
  • It's restorative - A growing body of research shows attention, cognitive function and productivity all rise as a result of being outside. Stress, mental fatigue, depression and anxiety all reduce. Almost every company I have worked with is attempting to address one or more of these issues continuously in the workplace.

The bush is no magic bullet, but a well thought out and delivered outdoors program can have massive and lasting effects. If you would like to discuss how you might use some outdoor time this financial year, feel free to be in touch.






The time loomed close. At first light just before dawn, the group was to set off into unknown territory. Yesterday was a long day. Walking across a harsh and rugged landscape with minimal supplies and uncertain access to water. Their bed had been scraped out among rocks and sticks. Sleep had been elusive, caught in short bursts of an hour or two and punctuated by the need to stoke the fire for warmth or ease the pressure of sleeping on the ground.

In the pre dawn stillness, I heard someone throw up. Not a good start to the day! As the team medic, it was my job to investigate and assess. I was surprised by what I found. The young man who was ill was by far the fittest member of the group. Well trained, confident and competent. He'd been talking about taking this trip for over 2 years, and was planning to take on an even greater challenge immediately afterwards. As we talked about what was going on for him, it turned out that he wasn't ill as such. But he was stressed. 

His stress had him literally tied in knots, bunched and spasming muscle, a headache and waves of nausea. Debilitated by fear and anxiety. Despite our collective efforts, he was unable to stake it off, and ended up pulling out of the exercise.

His reaction was at the extreme end of a continuum of stress - the other end being so unstressed that we are bored. Somewhere in the middle is peak performance where we are stressed enough to be motivated, but not so much that we are overwhelmed (If you want to know more about that, check out the Yerkes Dobson Curve). You may well have experienced some form of being overwhelmed during your life. In that state, it's very difficult to access your ability and rationale. Even simple decisions can seem impossible. Operating at that level takes an enormous amount of energy and is not sustainable.

When I'm speaking to people who are managing change programs, they often talk about resistance. Resistance sometimes shows up in spite of what people are saying. A person might have agreed to the change, and have even been enthusiastic about it, only to appear resistant later on. The typical response to resistance is to shove harder. More force rarely works and is usually matched with even greater resistance. 

Our pre dawn bloke was stressed and torn between a part of himself that really wanted to take on the challenge, and another that was unable to face it in that moment. He was concerned about appearing out of control, and incompetent in front of peers and mentors. This is often at the heart of resistance, and often is more to do with hard wired survival instinct than ego. For the vast majority of human history, we have lived in small tribes, or communities, reliant on each other's skill and competence for our very existence. in this context, incompetence was literally life threatening. When people are called upon to adopt something new, there's an inevitable period of uncertainly often accompanied by the need to learn new ways of doing. People will retreat to the familiar, especially if they are nearing their personal capacity of stress. It's not a conscious choice - they may not even be aware that they are doing it.

Rather than shoving harder, work on creating environments where the "new" can be engaged safely and playfully. Have explicit conversations about the unspoken expectations that create the resistance. - More on that next week. 

Who's involved?

The group sat in the shade and discussed their options. The campsite wasn't great. There was very little in the way of soft sand. In survival mode - literally sleeping on the ground -no soft sand means a hard nights sleep. The problem was it was also getting dark, and the group was walking in a gorge. Walking after dark was not a safe option. The group had almost decided to sleep here for the night. The trouble was not everyone had agreed. 

The group dispersed. Some people got busy collecting wood and water. Others began setting up a place to sleep. Two people were convinced that a better option existed just down the river. They decided to go check it out, recruiting another person on the way. They found a spot they preferred. Two people stayed there, replicating the effort of others upstream. The last came back to get the rest of the group. The trouble was no one else wanted to move. Not only had they not been involved in the revised decision, but they had also invested significant time and effort preparing this spot.

Eventually, the whole group got back together at the original spot. There were lots of disgruntled people, who remained dissatisfied for several days.

Over the past few weeks we have been looking at ineffective loops of behaviour. There are two here.

  1. The majority of the group flew into action too quickly. They thought the decision had been made, but others were not convinced. Spending a few more minutes coming to a firm decision would have stopped the problem before it began.
  2. The others made the subsequent decision without everyone present, and failed to communicate what they were doing and why. If they had gathered the group together for the discussion, or been more assertive in the original decision making process, they too could have headed it off at the pass.

Get clear before taking action. Involve all the key players.